The shots had rang out hours earlier, but it was only now that Karla saw where they had landed. The body had been laying there for the entire time, sprawled out on its front in the snow, and the blood had long since seeped into the snow and frozen in dark red clumps. It was such a normal sight that many of the others didn’t spare it a second glance, but Karla didn’t need a second glance anyway. He could tell immediately that this was another fake; the scuffs in the snow proved it, as did the countless footprints surrounding it.
Karla let his gaze linger for a moment on the body, allowed himself to take it all in, and then he swallowed down the frustration and arranged his features into a look of disgust instead.
“We’ll all die before the winter is out,” Vasily muttered, shivering so hard his teeth clattered together. “Do you think that’s why they send so many of us to this hellhole? They keep freezing off their manpower over the winter.”
A low rumble of laughter, though one man remained unamused.
“You are weak,” he said gruffly, and then he pulled off his glove and held up a hand. The tips of his fingers were all black with frostbite; Karla noticed several of them seemed to be too short. “I have survived five winters here. I can survive another.”
Vasily stared at the fingers for a long moment and then shook his head, muttering something under his breath that Karla couldn’t hear over the howling wind outside.
Karla was surprised that the thought reached him so calmly. He blinked again, tilting his head towards where he remembered the door was. Ice crackled in his hair as he did so, and he could see no light from the doorway. He could hear people moving around so it must be day. Karla turned his head back to the ceiling, though he couldn’t see it at all. His vision was simply dark, and be blinked several more times to confirm it.
Move, he thought to himself. If they know you’re blind they’ll kill you.
Karla didn’t think that it would do him much good in the long run – after all, it would soon become painfully apparent that he was blind. He managed to push himself up, his numb limbs aching, and roll himself out of the nest of blankets that did next to nothing to keep the cold out. He got to work rolling them up via touch, pushing them to the far corner. Somewhere behind him, someone called to him to hurry up.
“A moment,” he replied, surprised that his voice was also calm. He reached up, running a hand through his hair and feeling the ice separate in chunks. Then he wiped at his eyes, using both hands, gently at first and then allowing himself the briefest, most controlled moment of panic he could. He pushed the heels of his hands in and rubbed them roughly, feeling an intense burning the moment he moved his hands away.
He blinked rapidly, whatever was irritating his eyes growing briefly more painful and then finally fading. His vision went from completely dark to blurred shapes, and finally, as he stumbled to his feet and made for the door, into sharper images he could recognise.
Waiting at the door was the frostbitten man.
“What took you so long?” he asked. “Are you sick?”
“My eyes froze,” Karla said, and the frostbitten man barely reacted.
“That happens,” he said.
“He wasn’t running away,” Vasily murmured, looked over at the corpse, now mostly buried in fresh snow. “There were footprints all around him. Scuff marks. They turned him around.”
“And what if they did?” Karla asked pleasantly. “He should have been working.”
“He probably was. They just shoot people for no reason. You know that.”
“I think there is always a reason.”
Vasily paused briefly, shooting Karla a venomous gaze.
“That bullshit works with the guards, but not with me,” he said, before practically hurling the log in his arms at Karla. Karla rolled with it, barely losing a step, and tossed it to the next man.
A kick caught him in the stomach and a second one to the ribs; no sooner had Karla let himself slump into the snow did someone grab him by the hair and haul him to his knees, and the third blow struck him in the face and split his lip. Karla felt the blood instantly freeze in the wound.
“What did you do, then?” one of them asked, laughing, from somewhere behind him. Karla fought the urge to smile; typical of them, to always try and catch him out.
“I don’t follow,” he said, perfectly polite, and caught another kick to the side. He stopped himself from falling using the same wrist and felt it twinge painfully, though he was careful to show no evidence of the fact on his face.
“Everyone does something, right?” the guard continued. “Or were you just saying that to keep up appearances?”
“I was talking when I should have been working,” Karla said promptly, and the brief silence that followed was heavy with frustration.
“In that case,” another said. “We should perhaps punish your conversational partner too, to make things fair?”
“I suppose you should,” Karla replied.
He found the news out from the frostbitten man back in the hut that evening. He had been working in the same area.
“Actually tried to escape this time,” he said, while Karla pretended not to know what he meant. “Saw it. One of them actually got away.”
That, at least, surprised Karla.
“Did anyone go after him?”
Vasily snorted, and the frostbitten man shook his head.
“No,” he said, after a mouthful of watery soup. “They don’t bother.”
“Where will he go?” Vasily asked. His breath clouded in front of him as he spoke. “Out here, it’s nothing but forest and ice.”
“He’ll be dead by morning,” the frostbitten man put in. “It might feel cold in here but out there, without other bodies and with the wind blowing, you wouldn’t last longer than an hour.”
As though to back him up, the wind howled loudly, rattling the roof.
Nightly now, for several weeks, guards had done the rounds when everyone had settled down, pushing the doors of the huts open and letting the icy wind sweep through at floor level, biting through the tattered blankets. No one dared to grumble, but Karla was the only one who wouldn’t complain even long after the guards had left. They had a habit of leaving the door open behind them, deliberately of course, and the poor bastard who had to close it would remain cold all night, unable to gather back what little heat they had found under the blankets. For that reason, they took it in turns.
There had been another escape on the night of Karla’s turn, and so he was completely unsurprised to get up and go to close the door, only to find a gun levelled at his face.
“Did I say I was done?”
Karla couldn’t see much of the man in the dark, meaning it was a harsh, disembodied voice that floated over to him from behind the weapon.
“No,” Karla said, taking a half-step back. “Apologies.”
“Come out here.”
Without hesitation, Karla stepped out into the snow. It was coming thick and fast again, a new layer over it covering the footprints from earlier. It crunched loudly under his feet, the only sound in an eerily still night. He walked until the guard said to stop, stopping feet away from him and so close to the weapon, now lowered slightly and pointed at his chest, that he was convinced he could feel the pressure of it there. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was vaguely aware of the other guard standing close behind him, should he get the insane urge to bolt.
“What did you say your name was?”
Karla gave it.
“I know of you,” the guard said, and Karla saw the glint of his teeth in the searchlight as it panned over their heads. “You were Orlov’s protégé, weren’t you? His little star. How’s that working out for you?”
“I would rather not be reminded of it,” Karla said.
“Why’s that? Thought you were on your way to being a right high-flier.”
“Under the direction of a traitor,” Karla said coldly. “My career under him is not a mark of pride. It is the opposite.”
“How many times have you practised that in front of the mirror?” The guard behind him snorted as he spoke, and Karla fought the urge to turn to look at him, disliking how he could hear him shifting around in the snow but couldn’t see what he was doing.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said, feigning ignorance. “Unless you’re implying that I’m merely reciting the words without meaning them, which I assure you I’m not.”
“You were close to Orlov, yes?” the first guard asked. “I understand he was an old family friend.”
“A close friend of my father’s,” Karla answered. “Though I lost contact with him for a while when I left home to work.”
“How old were you then?”
“A boy, sir. Twelve.”
“He recruited you, I assume.”
“And yet you’re here, alive.”
“They concluded I had no idea of his plans,” Karla said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady. This was the first time in a long while he had consciously acknowledged the events in such detail. He was finding the experience increasingly unpleasant. “And of course I didn’t. Had I, then I would have told someone immediately.”
“So you’re here… why?” The guard tapped his gun against Karla’s chest now, and Karla felt the icy cold of the barrel through his clothing. “They gonna re-hire you once you’re out of here?”
“I have no idea.”
“You didn’t know he was going to do it, huh?”
“Hmm.” Another tap on the chest. “Go back inside. Leave the door open.”
“I have no good answer to that,” he said, again, though how many times he had said that he no longer knew. His teeth audibly clattered together as he knelt there, resisting the urge to wrap his arms around himself.
“You had better think of one fast.”
“I deserve to live no more than anyone else in my position. The only argument I could give to you is the simple fact that I do not want to die, because it is human nature to not want to die, and also I would feel rather guilty for it.”
“You would feel guilty, would you? Why is that?”
“I am young and in good health. It would be a waste of labour to shoot me now.”
“Do you think we want the assistance of those confirmed to be close to known traitors?”
“I would assume not,” Karla said. He couldn’t feel his legs. “If that is the case then by all means, shoot me. I have no further arguments, and I would not want to waste your time.”
“What if I wanted to hear you beg?”
Karla paused for a moment, a barely discernible moment where he gathered what little mental reserves hadn’t been chased away by the cold.
“Then I will beg.”
“You’re a fucking nutcase. Do you know that?” he asked, and when Karla turned to look at him, he was smiling.
“I wasn’t aware.”
“You should be. Everyone’s been saying it for weeks. They all point you out. There goes the nutcase, they say.”
“Should I be flattered?”
“I think you should. No one thought you were going to survive that last beating they gave you, you know.”
“It wasn’t anything much worse than I’ve had before.”
“Yeah, but then they made you work constantly like that… I don’t know how you did it. You must have got an hour’s sleep a night, if that.”
“It was necessary,” Karla said, sounding perfectly sincere. “I’m sure everyone would step up to the mark if they had to.”
“Come off that shit,” Vasily said, snorting. “I’m not a fucking guard. You don’t need to pretend like you love it. Take the cock out of your mouth for five seconds and tell me what you really think.”
Karla smiled, and vaguely Vasily registered something dark in his eyes, glittering there until he tried to acknowledge it fully and then abruptly vanishing.
“This is a punishment, Vasily,” Karla eventually said. “It isn’t mean to be fun. It’s meant to be endured. That is all I’m doing, same as everyone else. Perhaps the only difference is that I hate to be idle. I get comfort from the fact that I am doing something productive for the betterment of the country. It is much better than wasting resources in a jail cell doing nothing. If that were to be my fate, I would tell them to shoot me.”
“This is exactly what I mean,” Vasily said, exasperated. “You’re impossible to crack. A fucking nutcase.”
“Spring will be here soon,” he said one morning, while outside the snow and wind raged.
“Fuck off,” Vasily shot back, and Karla was tempted to verbally agree with him. “Does that sound like spring to you?”
“Spring will be here soon,” he repeated, more forcefully, and dropped the subject.
One thing stuck in his memory, though. Falling heavily to the ground he noticed something in the snow – something green. Staring at it as his eyes focused, the recognition of what it was brought a brief and dazed smile to his face.
Forcing its way through the frozen soil, spring was coming.